Sea Venture

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This article is about the English sailing ship. For the novel by Damon Knight, see CV (Knight novel).
Sea Venture
Coat of arms of Bermuda.svg
The coat of arms of Bermuda features a representation of the Sea Venture wreck.
Cost: £1,500
Launched: 1609
General characteristics
Tonnage: 300 tonnes

Sea Venture was a seventeenth-century English sailing ship that wrecked in Bermuda. Sea Venture's wreck is widely thought to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare's play The Tempest. She was the flagship of the London Company and a highly unusual vessel for her day.

The Virginia Company[edit]

The proprietary of the London Company had established the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, and delivered supplies and additional settlers in 1608, raising the English colony's population to 200, despite many deaths. The entire operation was characterized by a lack of resources and experience. The Company's fleet was composed of vessels that were less than optimal for delivering large numbers of passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, and the colony itself was threatened by starvation, diseases, and warfare with native peoples.

The colony at Jamestown seemed doomed to meet the same fate as the Roanoke Colony and the Popham Colony, two earlier failed English attempts to settle in North America, unless there was a major relief effort, despite the delivery of supplies in 1608 on the First and Second Supply missions of Captain Christopher Newport. Yet the investors of the London Company expected to reap rewards from their speculative investments. With the Second Supply, they expressed their frustrations and made demands upon the leaders of Jamestown in written form. They specifically demanded that the colonists send commodities sufficient to pay the cost of the voyage, a lump of gold, assurance that they had found the South Sea, and one member of the lost Roanoke Colony.

It fell to the third president of the Council to deliver a reply. Ever bold, Captain John Smith delivered what must have been a wake-up call to the investors in London. In what has been termed "Smith's Rude Answer", he composed a letter, writing (in part):

When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided; than a thousand of such as wee have: for except wee be able both to lodge them and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.[1]

Smith did begin his letter with something of an apology, saying "I humbly intreat your Pardons if I offend you with my rude Answer".[2]

There are strong indications that those in London comprehended and embraced Smith's message. Their Third Supply mission was by far the largest and best equipped. They even had the newly constructed purpose-built flagship Sea Venture placed in the most experienced hands of Christopher Newport.

The construction of Sea Venture[edit]

The Company built Sea Venture, probably in Aldeburgh, as England's first purpose-designed emigrant ship and in response to the inadequacy of its vessels. She measured "300 tunnes", cost £1,500, and differed from her contemporaries primarily in her internal arrangements. Her guns were placed on her main deck, rather than below decks as was then the norm. This meant that the ship did not need double-timbering, and she may have been the first single-timbered, armed merchant ship built in England[citation needed]. The hold was sheathed and furnished for passengers. She was armed with eight 9-pounder (4.1 kg) demi-culverins, eight 5-pounder (2.3 kg) sakers, four 3-pounder (1.4 kg) falcons, and four arquebuses. The ship was launched in 1609, and her uncompleted journey to Jamestown appears to have been her maiden voyage.

The loss of Sea Venture[edit]

On 2 June 1609, Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth as the flagship of a seven-ship fleet (towing two additional pinnaces) destined for Jamestown, Virginia as part of the Third Supply, carrying 500 to 600 people (it is unclear whether that number includes crew, or only settlers). On 24 July, the fleet ran into a strong storm, likely a hurricane, and the ships were separated. Sea Venture fought the storm for three days. Comparably sized ships had survived such weather, but Sea Venture had a critical flaw in her newness: her timbers had not set. The caulking was forced from between them, and the ship began to leak rapidly. All hands were applied to bailing, but water continued to rise in the hold. The ship's starboard-side guns were reportedly jettisoned (though two from the port-side were salvaged from the wreck in 1612 to arm the first forts) to raise her buoyancy, but this only delayed the inevitable. The Admiral of the Company himself, Sir George Somers, was at the helm through the storm. When he spied land on the morning of 25 July, the water in the hold had risen to 9 feet (2.7 m), and crew and passengers had been driven past the point of exhaustion. Somers deliberately drove the ship onto the reefs of what proved to be Bermuda in order to prevent its foundering. This allowed all 150 people aboard, and one dog, to be landed safely ashore.[3]

Deliverance and Patience[edit]

Sylvester Jordain's A Discovery of the Barmudas, 1610

The survivors, including several company officials (Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates, the ship's captain Christopher Newport, Sylvester Jordain, Stephen Hopkins, later of Mayflower, and secretary William Strachey), were stranded on Bermuda for approximately nine months. During that time, they built two new ships, the pinnaces Deliverance and Patience, from Bermuda cedar and parts salvaged from Sea Venture, especially her rigging. The original plan was to build only one vessel, Deliverance, but it soon became evident that she would not be large enough to carry the settlers and all of the food (salted pork) that was being sourced on the islands. While the new ships were being built, Sea Venture's longboat was fitted with a mast and sent under the command of Henry Ravens to find Virginia. The boat and its crew were never seen again.[4]

Some members of the expedition died in Bermuda before Deliverance and Patience set sail on 10 May 1610. Among those left buried in Bermuda were the wife and child of John Rolfe, who would found Virginia's tobacco industry, and find a new wife in Chief Powhatan's daughter Matoaka (Pocahontas). Two men, Carter and Waters, were left behind; they had been convicted of unknown offences, and fled into the woods of Bermuda to escape punishment and execution.[5]The remainder arrived in Jamestown on 23 May.

Sir Thomas Gates had a cross erected before leaving Bermuda, on which was a copper tablet inscribed in Latin and English:

In Memory of our deliverance both from the Storme and the Great leake wee have erected this cross to the honour of God. It is the Spoyle of an English Shippe of 300 tonnes called SEA VENTURE bound with seven others (from which the storme divided us) to Virginia or NOVA BRITANIA in America. In it were two Knights, Sir Thomas Gates, Knight Gouvenor of the English Forces and Colonie there: and Sir George Somers, Knight Admiral of the Seas. Her Captain was Christopher Newport. Passengers and mariners she had beside (which all come to safety) one hundred and fiftie. Wee were forced to runne her ashore (by reason of her leake) under a point that bore South East from the Northerne Point of the Island which wee discovered first on the eighth and twentieth of July 1609.[citation needed]

This was not the end of the survivors' ordeals. On reaching Jamestown, only 60 survivors were found of the 500 who had preceded them. Many of these survivors were themselves dying, and Jamestown was judged to be unviable. Everyone was boarded onto Deliverance and Patience, which set sail for England. The timely arrival of another relief fleet, bearing Governor Baron De La Warre, which met the two ships off Mulberry Island as they descended the James River, granted Jamestown a reprieve. All the settlers were relanded at the colony, but there was still a critical shortage of food. Somers returned to Bermuda with Patience to secure provisions, but died there in the summer of 1610. His nephew, Matthew, the captain of Patience, sailed for England to claim his inheritance, rather than return to Jamestown. A third man, Chard, was left behind in Bermuda with Carter and Waters, who remained the only permanent inhabitants until the arrival of Plough in 1612.

The ordeal was recounted by Sylvester Jordain[6][7] and by William Strachey, whose account is believed to have influenced the creation of Shakespeare's play The Tempest,[8]


Captain John Smith's 1624 map of the Somers Isles (Bermuda), showing St. George's Town and related fortifications, including the Castle Islands Fortifications.

Sea Venture sat atop the reefs off Gate's Bay long enough to be stripped of all useful parts and materials, not only by her crew and passengers, but by subsequent settlers; what was left of her eventually disappeared beneath the waves. Two of her guns were salvaged in 1612 and used in the initial fortification of Bermuda (one was placed on Governor's Island, opposite Paget's Fort, the other on Castle Island).[9] After the wreck's submergence, her precise location was unknown until rediscovered by sport divers Downing and Heird in October 1958. Despite the lack of artifacts to be found, she was positively identified in 1959, in time for the 350th anniversary of the wrecking.

Sea Venture was also the namesake of a cruise liner which operated between the US and Bermuda in the 1970s for Flagship Cruises, before being obtained by Princess Cruises, which renamed her Pacific Princess. She was subsequently used in the television show The Love Boat.[10]

In fiction[edit]

  • The wrecking is believed to have inspired William Shakespeare's The Tempest. This tradition has been confirmed by a detailed comparison to survivors' narratives, which shows that the account of William Strachey, True Reportory of the Wrack, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, was the primary source Shakespeare drew upon.
  • Bermuda resident and novelist, F. Van Wyck Mason, wrote a fictionalised account of the wrecking, The Sea 'Venture, first published in 1961.
  • 20th-century American author Scott O'Dell wrote and published a fictionalized account of the Sea Venture shipwreck called The Serpent Never Sleeps.
  • Children's author Clyde Robert Bulla wrote a fictionalized account of the Sea Venture voyage called A Lion to Guard Us. It focuses on three children sailing to Jamestown to find their father.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith 1624, p. 150.
  2. ^ Smith 1624, p. 147.
  3. ^ Horn, James (2006). A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books. pp. 158–160. ISBN 0-465-03094-7. 
  4. ^ Evans 1957, p. 7.
  5. ^ Smith 1624, p. 344.
  6. ^ Vaughan & Vaughan 1991, p. 41.
  7. ^ Evans 1957, p. 5.
  8. ^ Vaughan & Vaughan 1991, pp. 38–40.
  9. ^ Harris, Edward Cecil (1997). Bermuda Forts 1612–1957. Bermuda Maritime Museum Press. ISBN 0-921560-11-7. 
  10. ^ McKenna, Robert (2003). The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy. McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 276. ISBN 0-07-141950-0. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]